Is your G-d dead?

I don’t mean the G-d of the philosophers or the scholars, but, as Blaise Pascal said, the “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob.” With no disrespect, I hope the question comes as a jolt. And without being outraged or quick to accuse me of “blasphemy,” know, too, that I am a hopeful monotheist. I might even be called a Christian, only I continue, every day of my life, to fail. Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation weighs heavily on me: “There was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” Call me a failed and broken Christian, but a Christian nevertheless.

So, is your G-d dead? Have you buried G-d in the majestic, ornamental tombs of your churches, synagogues and mosques? Perhaps prosperity theology, boisterous, formalistic and mechanical prayer rituals, and skillful oratory have hastened the need for a eulogy. (George Yancy, “Is Your G-d Dead?,” New York Times, June 19, 2017)  


In an essay that should have been titled, “Is Your Religion Dead?,” George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, calls to task followers of monotheistic religions for what he perceives is indifference and a lack of active involvement in social justice. “I have been troubled by the lack of religious and theological outrage against national and global poverty, white racism and supremacism, sexism, classism…, bullying, building walls, ‘alternative facts,’ visa/immigration bans and xenophobia… Perhaps by remaining in your ‘holy’ places, you have sacrificed looking in the face of your neighbor on the street. You know the one: the one who smells ‘bad’ because she hasn’t bathed in days; the one who carries her home on her body; the one who begs… Perhaps you’re preoccupied with texting, consumed by a work or family matter. Then again, perhaps it’s prayer time and you need to face east…”

So how does Professor Yancy propose to address this apathy?

“In meditating on these questions, I have found that the prophetic voice of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a Polish-born Jewish-American rabbi and activist, can help us toward an answer. Heschel studied in Germany with Martin Buber, and later became a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.

This article does not address the global concerns of Yancy but examines his proposed theory for Tikun Olam, specifically how it relates to Jews as articulated by his “prophet,” Abraham Heschel. Heschel taught initially at the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College for five years (1941 – 1946), followed by serving as a professor at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary until 1972.

Yancy writes that “Heschel cautions against ‘an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism.’”

Certainly Judaism abhors dishonesty and insincerity in one’s practice of Judaism. However, Professor Heschel’s philosophy broke from the unswerving commitment to observing halachah. His contemporary, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote in Halakhic Man, p. 59, that halachah translates Torah ideals into concrete action: “The halachah, which was given to us from Sinai, is the objectification of religion in clear and determined forms, in precise and authoritative laws, and in definite principles. It translates subjectivity into objectivity, the amorphous flow of religious experience into a fixed pattern of lawfulness.”

In contrast, Heschel rejected the observance of halachah as a foundation of Judaism:

“Ish Ha-halakhah? {Halakhic man}? Lo haya velo nivra ela mashal haya {There never was such a Jew}! Soloveitchik’s study, though brilliant, is based on the false notion that Judaism is a cold, logical affair with no room for piety. After all, the Torah does say ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and might’. No, there never was such a typology in Judaism as the halakhic man. There was – and is – an Ish Torah {a Torah man} who combines halakhah and aggadah, but that is another matter altogether. When I came to Berlin I was shocked to hear my fellow students talking about the problem of halakha as a central issue. In Poland it had been a foreign expression to me. Halakhah is not an all-inclusive term, and to use it as such is to restrict Judaism. ‘Torah’ is the more comprehensive word. (Hasidism and Halakha, Fordham University Press, p. 102, cited in Wikipedia.)

“Torah” may be a more overarching descriptive term of Judaism, but Torah without halachah is a like body without a soul. As Rabbi Soloveichik writes above, the halachah is anchored in the revelation and giving of the Torah at Sinai; it is an intrinsic, inseparable, and defining expression of Judaism.

Moreover, only through the mitzvot and the halachah can one achieve the very goal of the Torah – to build a relationship with G-d. Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene (Set in Stone, p. 31, Targum Press) writes that each mitzvah we fulfill intrinsically connects us with God: “Judaism is not as much a religion as it is a relationship. It is only through mitzvah observance that man can build a deep, enduring, and meaningful relationship with God… That a mitzvah is the very process of forging the bond [with God] is contained within the very word מצוה, “commandment,” closely related to the  Hebrew word צוותא, meaning a connection or a binding.”

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander explains (Siftei Chaim, Midot ve-Avodat Hashem, Vol. 1, p. 406) that the mitzvot enhance one’s awareness of being in God’s presence: “Fulfilling all the details of the laws written in the Shulchan Aruch should bring a person to a feeling of ‘I have placed God before me always,’ that whatever he thinks, does, or says is done in God’s presence, and that every act should be a fulfillment of His will. As such, the feeling of being in God’s presence is at once the reason for keeping the Torah and mitzvot as well as the outcome of doing so.”

Where is the flaw in Hershel’s thinking? He places human reason above Divine command. Yancy cites Heschel who “warned frequently of the dangers of theological and religious shallowness, of our tendency to ‘worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.’

That we need to place Divine law above man’s understanding is addressed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in his sefer Derash Moshe on Parshas Chukas. Rav Moshe wonders why the Torah uses the same expression describing the mitzvah of purification by the Parah Adumah, Red Cow, as “zos chukas HaTorah – this is the statute of the Torah” as well is in the mitzvah of the koshering of vessels after the war with Midian (zos chukas HaTorah – this is the statute of the Torah). Why doesn’t the Torah refer to each mitzvah by its specific context: “This is the statute of the Red Cow” and “This is the statute of the utensils?”

Rav Moshe answers that the Torah is coming to teach us a foundational principal about the rationale of all mitzvahs; ultimately they are all considered chukim, statutes, whether or not we may have a logical  explanation for them. The Parah Adumah has no rational explanation and is called a “chok.” Alternatively, the koshering process of the utensils from Midian is quite intuitive: vessels rendered unkosher through cooking with water must be koshered with water; similarly vessels made unkosher by direct flame must be koshered through flames. Yet the Torah refers to both the Parah Adumah purification and the koshering of the Midian vessels as chukim, statutes of the Torah.

It is this shortcoming in understanding the essence of the basis of mitzvos that has made Professor Heschel, in hindsight, and to reflect on Yancy’s term, into a false prophet. To legislate that halacha is not binding in Judaism has proven to be a near death blow to all non-halachik streams of Judaism.

The findings of the recent Jewish People Policy Institute study reported in NLEResources.com by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg revealed, shockingly, that among all non-Orthodox Jews in the 25-54 age group, just 15% are married to a Jewish spouse and have Jewish children. Intermarriage rates increase the younger the generation. Among those aged 40-44, 60% are intermarried.  Among those aged 35-39, it is 73%, and 75% of those aged 30-34 have a non-Jewish spouse.

In contrast, Orthodox Jewish communities, which by definition embrace halachah, are growing and thriving worldwide.

One final point. Professor Heschel critiqued Rabbi Soloveichik’s halachik  approach as “based on the false notion that Judaism is a cold, logical affair with no room for piety.”

Nothing is further than the truth. In the words of the Rebeinu Yona, Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:13, making an all-out effort to assist others is one of man’s main tasks in life:  “One is obligated to toil, exerting himself to the depths of his very soul, on behalf of his fellow man, be that person rich or poor. This is one of the most crucial and important things that man is called upon to do.”

This mandate would also prove meaningful to Professor Yancy.

Click here for the NLE Morasha Shiurim on The Jewish Vision of Spirituality.

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